Religious booklets formed a substantial part of the boom in commercial publishing and print culture in nineteenth and early-twentieth north India, cheaply available and widely reprinted by multiple publishers. This essay considers two popular texts that allow us to trace some of the range and of the linguistic and emotional contours of this production. Alif Be alphabet poems gesture towards the earlier history of Muslim oral traditions in north India. Short Wafātnāma verse narratives on the death of the Prophet Muhammad, conversely, were most likely produced by authors connected to Sunni reform movements and sought to focus their devotion on the Prophet alone.
By the late nineteenth century, when printing press was popular across the world. In South Asia, there was increased production and dissemination of Tamil and Malayalam vernacular materials in Arabic script. This intermarriage of local languages with a cosmopolitan script was part of a larger trend of the time, and in South India those were advanced by Arabic-Malayalam and Arabic-Tamil literatures (also referred as Malabari and Arwī respectively). Hundreds of texts printed annually at the prime centres of Islamic printing on both Malabar and Coromandel coasts were circulated among mobile and immobile communities of the region across the Indian Ocean, Pacific and Atlantic littorals. The reach and impact of such vernacular printings are yet to be explored thoroughly, for these materials have been spread across several formal and informal collections and there has not been any systematic attempt to identify or catalogue them. In this article, I focus on uncatalogued Arabic-Malayalam materials at the British Library London on which I have been working on in the last few years. These materials from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries help us understand the history of the region, religion and printing. After a brief historical overview, I focus on some major features, themes, trends, places, and people in about 150 texts I consulted, and which I discuss in relation to broader histories of Arabic-Malayalam tradition.
Scholarly discussions on Islam in print have focused predominantly on the role of Urdu in the development of North Indian Muslim publics (Dubrow, 2018; Robb, 2020), ʿulama and Islamic jurisprudence (Tareen, 2020) and relations between Islam and colonial modernity (Robinson, 2008; Osella & Osella, 2008) This special issue instead offers fine-grained investigations on technology and labour; print landscapes, networks and actors; subaltern languages; and popular Islam. We critique the idea of an “epistemic rupture” brought about by colonial modernity, providing a more systematic analysis of continuities and changes in Islamic knowledge economy. Examining two centuries of print authored by South Asian Muslims, the articles in the issue provide new ways of thinking about questions of knowledge production, distribution, circulation and reception. The issue broadens the scope of earlier scholarship, examining genres such as cosmology, divination, devotional poems, salacious songs, romances and tales of war in Urdu, Persian, Arabic, dobhāṣī do Bangla, Arabic Malayalam, Sindhi, Balochi and Brahui. The articles show the different ways that pre-colonial practices and cultures of writing and reading persisted in the print landscape, in terms of copying, adaptation, translation and circulation of texts. They inquire into new technologies, labour and networks that evolved, and how it provided fertile ground for both new and traditional forms of religious activities and authorities. The articles present new Muslim publics, geographies, and imaginaries forged through the vernacularisation of Islam, and their relationship to the transnational or global community.
From the 1840s, one of the most visible print genres in the popular ‘Battala’ book trade in Calcutta was the so-called chāpā puthis. Such works, though printed, adhered faithfully to the distinctive layout and typography of the Islamic manuscript tradition which had been current for several centuries in Bengal. They were also among the most lucrative of literary properties, and when the passage of Act XX of 1847 gave copyright protection to books printed in British India., the printers who seized upon the act with the greatest alacrity were those of “chāpā puthis.” The printers of such puthis used the title-page to provide copious metadata, in the process laying bare the often invisible ecology of labor of the print-house. This article will provide a preliminary account of the printing and publishing history of the genre, with its focus on print-house practices, and in particular, the figure of the compositor.
Hell (al-nar, the Fire) and Paradise (al-janna, the Garden), as punishment and reward for Muslims for failing in performing obligatory practices or perfecting them, appeared in popular print in late nineteenth-century Bengal, to coalesce an audience as belonging to the umma. In a reformist attempt to offer Islamic eschatology to the masses, references were based on Qurʾanic and hadith-based traditions, available in Urdu and Bangla and borrowed freely from several sources. The fear of torment in Hell and sensory indulgence in Paradise, articulated by the ʿulamaʾ as part of reformist Islam in Bengal, drew awe towards God and piety towards the Prophet. With the Qurʾan and hadis repertoire in Bangla, sharīʿa-based knowledge was standardized, but ʿulamaʾ who were writing doctrinal treatises for the masses created multiple layers of negotiation between high and popular forms of eschatology by exploring the creative potential of the hereafter.
This article analyzes the prominence of print in the Sufi ṭarīqa of Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki (d. 1899), a pre-eminent Indian Chishti-Sabri shaykh who settled in the Ottoman Hijaz after escaping North India in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny. It explores the transregional contexts of the publication of Haji Imdadullah’s works, in the long journey of his manuscripts from Mecca to their lithographic printing in North India and their distribution through Ottoman disciples as far as Istanbul. In this study two main lines of inquiry are followed. First, how did Imdadullah participate intimately from Mecca in the editing and publication of Arabic, Urdu, and Persian books in British India, including his famed commentary and critical edition of the Masnavi-yi Maʿnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273)? Second, the article follows the emergence of broader scholarly exchanges as a series of Istanbul-based Mevlevi shaykhs became invested in Imdadullah’s publications and even translated some from Persian to Ottoman Turkish. Ultimately, this article sheds light on how such Indian – Ottoman encounters in the Hijaz were catalyzed by a common investment in the Persianate disciplines of Sufi theology and classical Persian poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period typically seen as marking the shrinking and disintegration of the Persianate world. In so doing, the article highlights how modern Sufi discourse in Persian continued to facilitate intellectual exchange between Indian and Ottoman Sufi shaykhs through the Hijaz and formed an integral pillar of transregional Persianate print culture.
This article examines the relationship between Islamic modernism and Arabic print between the Mashriq and Indian subcontinent in the early twentieth century. Seeking to understand how Islamic modernists modified their message as they targeted new audiences, even as they promoted a unilingual program, this article explores the two printed publications in Arabic that emerged from the 1912 journey of Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), the founder of the Cairo-based journal al-Manar (The Lighthouse, 1898–1935), to British India. The first publication is “ʿUjala min rihlat al-Hind” (A Brief Report from the Journey to India), which Rida serially published in Cairo in 1912. The second publication is the summary of Rida’s subcontinental travels by his Iraqi-born Urdu translator, Sayyid ʿAbd al-Haqq Haqqi al-Aʿzami al-Baghdadi al-Azhari (1873–1924), which he wrote in the United Provinces town of Aligarh during 1912. Examining these two texts together, this article argues that their publication reflected the two separate concerns of their authors. While Rida sought to convey to al-Manar’s readership his experiences in British India by depicting them as analogous to the realities of the Ottoman Arab provinces and Egypt, al-Azhari sought to integrate al-Manar’s Islamic modernist enterprise into North Indian spheres of Islamic thought, practice, and print aesthetics. In so doing, this article shows how different audiences and modes of circulation enabled Islamic modernist enterprises to operate on both regional and transregional scales, reflecting the malleability of, and interconnectedness between, the worlds of Arabic and Urdu print during the period in question.
Songbooks were an especially popular product in the colonial-era book industry of northern India. From cheap chapbooks to multi-volume tomes, collections of lyrics covered a range of tastes and genres, appealing to different social settings and performance practices. This article excavates the worlds of music-making invoked by these books through the case study of khemṭā. The khemṭā dancing girl was a low-status performer, associated with the playboy culture of early-nineteenth century Calcutta. Khemṭā lyrics were considered especially salacious and sensual, and the common view today is that the genre was geared towards titillation rather than artistry. Following the exile of Wajid ʿAli Shah of Awadh (r. 1847–1856) to Calcutta, this genre began to be choreographed and performed in the royal court, and the former king began to collect – and compose his own – khemṭā lyrics. By the late nineteenth century, khemṭā dancers were performing at fairs across northern India, and their verses were being compiled and printed in different scripts and languages.
Khemṭā’s increasing popularity challenges the general impression of the late nineteenth century as a period of rising conservatism posed against “decadent” literary and musical forms. This view of the period presents an obstacle to making sense of the activities of Muslim lyricists, choreographers, dancers, and songbook editors. Countering this narrative, this article considers how khemṭā was printed, read, sung, and danced, and the modes of listening and arousal embedded in the printed song text.